For Gus Kenworthy, the X Games feel like home.
“There’s just an energy it has even before the competitions have started. You just get really excited about it,” the freestyle skier tells MTV News. As a kid, he would travel to Aspen, Colorado, from his hometown of Telluride to watch competitions he dreamed of one day entering; bearing witness to these extreme feats — like the switch triple rodeo 1440 and other tricks that see competitors all but laugh in the face of gravity and velocity — gave him the same sense of excitement he feels now. “This will be my 10th year competing, and it doesn’t get any less exciting each time,” he adds.
A lot has changed for Kenworthy in that decade: He’s won more than a few world championships, nabbed a silver medal in Men’s Slopestyle at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and came out the following year in a viral ESPN cover story. That moment paved the way for representation in the extreme-sports world — he was the first in an industry that had never before counted an openly LGBTQ+ person among its superstars. Kenworthy was also one of the first openly gay male athletes to represent the United States at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Though he didn’t medal that year, he followed it up with another big moment: Landing the role of ghostly former Olympian Chet Clancy in Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story: 1984, which took its toll on the kind of training schedule professional athletes are used to.
Kenworthy admits he "really only skied a handful of days in the past two years,” though he added that he just got back from what he called an “incredibly frigid” trip to Calgary, Alberta, Canada. “I just got back into the half pipe for the first time in about a year,” he says, before going through a run-down of what his typical training day looks like: Four hours of work on the slopes before hitting the gym for weight-lifting and a spin session, followed by dinner, sleep, and doing it all over again the next day. It’s a taxing routine from which anyone would deserve a break every now and again, for both their physical and mental health.
Add to that the prospect of competing for the Olympics, which comes once every four years — while his training regimen usually stays the same, the pressure is that much more intense. Kenworthy is already thinking of the 2022 games, which are slated to be held in Beijing, China. He’s aiming to represent Great Britain in what the 28-year-old says will likely be his last Olympic appearance as a competitor. The choice to switch from Team U.S.A. is a personal one — it’s both a tribute to his mom, who is English, and something of a homecoming, as he was born in England (Kenworthy’s family moved to Colorado when he was a toddler).
“My mom has stood there waving the stars and stripes and cheering me on, and I just want to do the same for her,” he says.
But before that are this year’s X Games, where he’ll be competing in ski superpipe and slopestyle. This year, the skier is focusing on getting into the zone before he steps onto the course. “There’s been many years where I felt like I could win or do well and struggled to put it together under the pressure,” he admits, adding that he often leans on music to help him through the stress. On his amp-up playlist you’d find everything from “Sleep Deprivation” by Simian Mobile Disco to Billie Eilish’s smash, “You Should See Me In A Crown,” to the remix of “Genius” by Sia, Diplo, and Labrinth, featuring Lil Wayne. “I’m kind of throwing it all out there and seeing what sticks,” he adds with a laugh.
The Games start January 23 and run through January 26. They hold a special place in the skier's heart, given his legacy as one of the annual competition’s trailblazers. “The X Games are pretty inclusive, they just never really had a chance to be prior to my coming out,” he notes. “But I feel like they’ve always been against bullying and they want to be on the right side of things.”
He points to an X Games tradition he says “was always a struggle” prior to his coming out. Each year, producers ask athletes if a girlfriend or boyfriend is in the stands so they can broadcast their image during the competition. When he was younger and still closeted, the moment “kind of filled me with a little bit of disappointment that I was never going to be able to have that,” he says. “It wasn’t with malice, you know what I mean? I think that they just didn’t know any better. It was heteronormative only because no one had ever broken the mold.”
But at the 2016 games, producers showed Kenworthy’s then-boyfriend on-screen, in keeping with the tradition they’d afforded every other athlete. “Getting to have my boyfriend and my mom standing at the bottom of the course and having a little thing that came up and said his name and that he was my boyfriend was a really proud moment for me,” he says. “He’s now my ex-boyfriend, but that was still a big, monumental thing. Just to see that on ESPN on primetime broadcast — seeing a gay athlete competing and having their significant other recognized I just think is sweet.” It didn’t hurt that Kenworthy earned silver and bronze medals that year.
Being true to himself is a core tenet of Kenworthy’s beliefs, especially given his position as a sports star and that he often appears on stages as big as the X Games. “I think it’s very important to use your platform as athletes and entertainers, as someone in the public eye to try and help create change,” he says. “Politics play into every single thing that we do as human beings, and to think otherwise is ignorant and also kind of neglectful, in my opinion. It’s very important that people have strong and educated opinions.”
The question isn’t whether sports are political — they always have been. And while detractors have often attempted to silence athletes, and particularly those from marginalized communities, their attempts at suppression have often proved ineffective in the long run. Kenworthy is among the sports stars standing their ground. “I find nothing more frustrating than people saying ‘shut up and dribble’ or whatever, as if, just because we’re athletes, we shouldn’t be entitled to voicing our concerns or opinions,” he says. “If anything, we have more reason to speak up because there’s more people listening and more people affected by our words. So you have to use that for good.”
For his part, he’s putting his body where his mouth is, by biking 545 miles from San Francisco, California, to Los Angeles later this year with AIDS/LifeCycle, his second time making the trip. Last year, he raised $250,000 in an effort to raise money to fight HIV and AIDS, a feat he hopes to replicate. And he plans to chronicle the highs and lows of that ride, as well as the X Games, the Olympics, and everything in between on social media, where he’s amassed over 1.2 million followers on Instagram alone. That’s a platform and an audience whose significance he doesn’t take for granted — though he’d advise taking it with a grain of salt.
“Social media can end up being a highlight reel,” Kenworthy says. “Sometimes it’s important to acknowledge the disappointments and the letdowns,” including auditions he didn’t land and tough practices. In between, there’s plenty of time to repost memes, upload photos from his travels, and, of course, return to the sport where it all started.
“Any time I go skiing, I have no doubt in my mind about how good or strong or capable I am,” he says. “I have that confidence because of years and years and years of competing and lots of failure and lots of success.”